Walk Q & A

As part of the publicity for the talk at Wrexham (see “day 22 – travel and talking“), Andrew Price at Glyndŵr University asked me to answer some questions.  These are my answers:

Where did the idea for your walk come from? What was the primary motivation?

I was on the mainland and ‘down south’ around March/April time last year and heard a radio report on the opening in May 2012 of the Wales Coast Path, it also mentioned that with Offa’s Dyke Path it formed a complete circuit round Wales.   When I heard it I just knew I had to do it.

At that point it was simply a compelling feeling, but as I thought more it became obvious that this project, in many ways, linked with areas of my research going back over at least 20 years as well as more recent community focused projects on Tiree (the little Scottish island where I live).

… and as a tiny child I used to look at the world and imagine walking round it … well, so not the world, but at least Wales, which is the bit that matters most 😉

Which towns have you visited so far? How has the journey been so far?

I started in Cardiff, and been through Newport (mainly the industrial/commercial area), Chepstow (with a 5-mile excursion back and forth over the (old) Severn Bridge, a wonderful walk), Llandogo, Monmouth, Pandy, Hay-on-Wye and Kington.

I was finding the pace quite heavy in terms of daily mileage (which seasoned ramblers said it was!), so am now sending bags on between B&Bs so I just have a day-pack … sooooo much better.  The odd ache and pain in legs and feet, but so far the worst problem has been getting too hot and catching sunburn on the top of my head (yep, sunburn in April).

I have already made so many new friends along the way, and seen the strangest things, from a tree-trunk doorway in Monmouth to a set of steps going down into the earth in the middle of a field. I am struggling to keep up with writing about it all!

What are the technological challenges that a walker faces (your thoughts on this before you set off…) and what would you say the technology challenges are for rural communities?

Because I am doing this with a research project I have a little more technology than the average walker (!). This means I end up carrying a lot of weight in terms of devices and power supplies, and also tend to take quite a bit of time each evening ‘tending’ my technology, transferring data, uploading stuff to the web, etc.

Because I have some quite critical apps running on my phones, I have become obsessed with battery life (some days the power has run out before the end of the day), and then paranoid about actually using them for anything, for fear of using up power!

One of the key issues is that even when in a fixed place, access to phone and internet is patchy: occasionally in unexpected places everything works wonderfully, but at other times you feel as if the internet, like the buildings, has reverted to the 16th century.

This is, of course, one of the problems for communities also, dealing with network connections vastly slower and less reliable than those in major cites … that is when there is any connection at all!  This then compounds existing problems of lack of resources in rural areas, not to mention often relatively low incomes, and higher proportions of older people, all leading to the danger of rural communities being marginalised in an increasing digital age.  This is exemplified particularly in the new Universal Credit which is predicated on easy access to the internet.

On a positive note, technology can be used to connect rural communities both internally within the community and externally with other communities with similar issues.  For example, I have been involved in a project on Tiree to help the youth worker connect with youngsters using a combination of web, social networking and SMS.

What technology equipment have you been armed with during your walk?

I have several mobile phones, mini-tablets and laptops of different kinds (happily not all being carried at the same time!). The phones run a variety of standard apps, including the navigation app, ViewRanger. The ViewRanger team kindly supported me by providing detailed digital maps. The phones also run some research apps, including one that allows family and other supporters to see my current heart rate and give me virtual ‘cheers’.

I also have some recording tools: a compact camera and voice recorder (so far I have been taking 100–200 photos a day plus around 30–40 audio ‘posts’ that I record while actually walking); a Garmin GPS reader and recorder (to create a full trace of where I have been, speed, altitude, etc.); and a ‘SPOT‘ device which uses GPS like the Garmin, but instead of recording it sends a ‘ping’ to a satellite every few minutes and has an ‘SOS’ button that can use the satellite link to call emergency services no matter where I am.

Finally I have a number of bio-seonsors: one hobbyist/sports heart rate monitor, a medical grade ECG monitor (the full blippty blip you see on Casualty!) and a wrist monitor for skin conductivity (like a i.e. detector!) and skin temperature.

How have you been going about exploring what the IT needs of walkers and rural communities are on a practical, day-to-day level?

For the walker first there is a very practical experience of using these things (or failing to!) on a day-to-day basis. And I even have apps that watch other apps to record what I am doing with some of the devices!

I am also observing the ways other walkers use or do not use technology.  For example, getting the SPOT device was prompted partly by the story of a young local man who had got lost with friends on a short walk in their own area and had to call out the emergency services by mobile phone, which thankfully had signal.

For the local communities I have some meetings pre-arranged (for example someone connected with the MonmouthpediA project that made Monmouth the ‘world’s first Wikipedia town’.  But also many chance meetings, such as one in Hay-on-Wye where I found that the man selling me batteries was the chair of a local organisation seeking to buy the fishing rights of the Wye near Hay for the community.

What do you hope to achieve from the journey?

Many things and nothing.

The many things … I have aims in terms of writing about locality and the thread of paths through them; making connections to enable practical things to help communities, understanding better issues of poor connectivity, creating data for academic colleagues to use in their own research.

… and nothing: the most exciting things are the things I cannot think of now, the things I learn from chance encounters on the the way, the unexpected and unplanned.

Why did you choose Wales – what is your personal connection to the area?

I was born and brought up in Cardiff and spent my first 18 years in the house where I was born.  However, I have not lived in Wales now for 35 years, so there is a big sense of re-connection with my roots.

Any other thoughts or interesting points about your trip to date

I am a person who is paranoid about being bored, having ‘nothing to do’, and yet in my walking so far, I have not been bored for a single moment.

It is really weird to change from being one of those people who looks on at other people who ‘do something’ unusual to find myself just one of those other people!

I could have done with a little more training :-/  Not walking for 35 years and then doing 1000 miles is maybe just a little crazy 🙂

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